1 Corinthians 12:1-11

by Daniel Harrell

A map made its way around the internet showing the national rooting interest by state regarding this afternoon’s AFC football contest. Most of the country was rooting for the Missouri-based football club rather than the perennial winner hailing from the birthplace of American patriotism. As a New England fan, I confess feeling a bit besieged by all the hatred here in the heartland.

I know. You’d rather eat bad lutefisk that root for Tom Brady. There’s plenty to envy: 13 AFC Championship games and eight straight. Nine Super Bowl appearances and five rings. His remarkable do-it-right diet and apparent agelessness. A supermodel wife. His charm and charisma. They say nobody works harder than Tom Brady. But success takes more than diligence and effort. Psychologists say hard work can account for 70% of our success. But you also need to be gifted. That’s what charisma’s about.

We think of charisma mostly in terms of attractiveness that engages others and compels them to follow. Charismatic leadership articulates captivating vision and arouses strong emotional connection. Martin Luther King Jr. was incredibly charismatic—eloquent and courageous and full of conviction. Charismatic leaders cut straight to the heart—but human hearts can be devious and duplicitous. Adoration taps into the same energy as resentment. The same crowds who hailed Jesus as king on Palm Sunday will call for his head by Good Friday. Similarly, charismatic leadership isn’t always a virtue. Martin Luther King Jr. was charismatic. But so was Hitler.

Charisma comes from the Greek word in the Bible for grace. It’s translated here in 1 Corinthians as “gift.” By labeling charisma a spiritual gift, the apostle Paul wants to be clear as to its source. You can have plain charisma and curse Jesus, just not Holy Spirit charisma. As spiritual gift, charisma comes from God as pure grace—you don’t earn it or deserve it. And once you have it, it’s not yours to possess. Paul speaks of giftedness alongside service and work. There are a wide variety of spiritual gifts and services, but only one source and one purpose: the common good.

Paul says everybody’s got a gift—very Minnesotan of him. Verse 7: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” or “the benefit of all.” Paul goes on to say how the Holy Spirit parcels out gifts individually as she chooses, some get this one and another that. How do you know which is yours?

A few of us have been thinking about giftedness in the context of vocation and calling as part of a grant our church has received from the Collegeville Institute at St. John’s University. We’re tasked with designing a project for our congregation around calling, a natural tie-in to our larger ReForming question as a church; namely: “What is God calling us to next?” St. John’s professor Kathleen Cahalan offers three images for discovering your giftedness: the acorn, the pilgrimage and the surprising aha. The acorn refers to an awareness of calling from early in life—a strong, inner sense of purpose—you always knew what you were born to do. An acorn can only become an oak tree. The pilgrimage refers to an unfolding sense of purpose over time; you discover your calling as you risk and wrestle with the opportunities and challenges life presents. Your giftedness was always there, it just took time to realize it. The surprising aha is calling as a kind of conversion, you thought your purpose in life was X, but suddenly you see you’ve been chosen to do Y and now you have no other choice. God has spoken. 

Interestingly, the research shows calling and purpose are most critical not as we’re embarking on our careers, but once we retire. The job descriptions that defined me are gone. So who am I now? You’ll recall the distinction author David Brooks made between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. Résumé virtues are those skills you spend so much energy acquiring so to get ahead in the world and make your way up the ladder. Eulogy virtues are the ones you hope people say about you at your funeral. In retirement the end is in sight. What will people say about me when I’m gone?

1 Corinthians offers a particular gift list—cool stuff like miracles and prophecy and healing and speaking in tongues. Theologians across the spectrum debate what Paul meant: Pentecostals insist on the supernatural—signs and wonders. Reformed folks opt for the more manageable—spiritual gift assessments, inventories and training regimens.  Progressives prefer a metaphorical take—speaking in tongues as an affirmation of multiculturalism, for instance. Part of my job description as Senior Minister is to help you identify your spiritual gifts and use them. I plan to do that as soon I figure out my own.

We’ve been praying to discern as a congregation our collective gift: “What is God calling us to next?” We’ve generated five awesome core values—welcome, risk, wrestle, immerse and do good—and a strategic focus around deeper community and crossing gaps that divide. Many are impatient for the final answer: “what’s the one thing God wants us to do?” Some of you just want me to decide. “You’re the Senior Minister, just lead us and we’ll follow wherever you tell us to go.” Maybe if I had that gift of performing miracles.

One problem in Corinth was how the congregation grew so enamored with charisma they lost sight of the grace. Paul reminds them they used to be pagans, led astray to dumb idols, thinking life and the future was theirs to control and that somehow they were in charge. They came to Jesus and got gifted by the Spirit, but didn’t quite let loose of the idolatry. Giftedness turned into an elitism and pretentiousness that haunted the church for centuries. Bishops and priests and monks and ministers became congregational idols, worshipped as authoritative and superior and called by God because of their giftedness. (That must have been great.) Unmoored from the Holy Spirit, charisma soured into license for abuse—most appallingly among predatory priests who molested children, manipulative televangelists who’ve swindled the aged and ill out of their life savings, and power-hungry pastors who’ve resorted to politics at the sacrifice of their salt.

The Corinthians gift list ranks the more popular, so-called charismatic gifts, toward the bottom: healing and miracles and prophecy and speaking in tongues. Wisdom and understanding are at the top. The point is not that some gifts are ever better than others, but that any church needs them all operating together to fully manifest the Spirit for the common good and glory of God.

When you were pagans you were led astray to dumb idols. Paul notes a divide between heathen and holy, but his point throughout Corinthians, is not division but unity. Next Sunday Kyle Roberts will pick up in verse 12 where Paul insists on the many as one body in Christ—the same Spirit inspires everything and we all have a role, however small. As the beloved poet Mary Oliver who died this week prayed, “May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful.”

Medieval Christianity hardened the divide between heathen and holy, separating secular from the sacred so to isolate its own power. Gatekeeping Popes and priests, immovable doctrines and sacraments created an exploitive obstacle course for getting to God—a stumbling block for people—reminiscent of that erected by Pharisees in the New Testament. But then along came the Protestant Reformers who tore down the barriers and unleashed the Spirit. For Martin Luther, John Calvin and others, there was no sacred and secular, no supernatural and natural, no church versus the world because “Christ is in all and fills all.”

The Reformers re-focused on vocation and giftedness as applied to every aspect of life, and especially to the work we do as participants in God’s creative purposes. Ministers and pastors serve our roles, but we do so alongside lawyers and farmers and engineers and technicians and accountants and artists and parents and teachers and managers and retirees embarking on new kinds of vocation. Calling goes way beyond job descriptions or tasks assigned and completed to the ways our work enhances human life, serves human needs, stewards creation and glorifies our Creator. Paul writes how whatever we’re called and given to do by grace is energized by the one and the same Spirit, making our work a kind of worship, soliciting from us all the skill and care we have to offer, without the work itself becoming our idol because it is Jesus we serve. Work done for the Lord refuses to sacrifice family, health or friendship to its ends for it does not prize fortune or status. The glory of God and the common good is sufficient reward and true satisfaction. At the end of the day, our identity is not in what we do but in the Spirit who empowers and Christ whom we serve.

You may be thinking, good for you, Reverend, but you should come to my office. Have you met my boss? Endured my deadlines? Felt my anxiety and stress? Worried about performance and security and salary like I do every day? Seeing our daily grinds as a dream job does sound like a lot of theological spin. Even for pastors. Modern day ministers are tasked with duties they never taught us to handle at seminary—small business management, benefit plans and program design, budget shortfalls, annual meetings, strategic planning and furniture selection, all the pressure that comes with trying to run a religious operation.

It’s been a hard week at work: our December budget came in way below projections. Our consultant who’s been helping with our ReForming process had to cancel our contract. People we’d counted on as volunteers for this or that have had their lives and schedules hijacked by competing demands. Others have just drifted away to better options or interests or other churches. We’re told how some people are sitting on the sidelines and waiting to see what happens before they decide whether to engage. There’s the ongoing resistance to change, unmet expectations and disappointment and anger and frustration over decisions; failures of process and bad leadership on my part and the disillusion of having run out of ideas. Piling on are the troubles and hardships families suffer, the sickness and dying and constant reminder that culture is shifting, the world is a mess and melting and my wrist is still broken.

Sara told me about a book to help me feel better, it’s called Loving and Leaving a Church. (She told me to ignore the title.) According to the author, Barbara Melosh, “Most of us can only cling to what we know and mourn the loss of the imagined glory days. Leaders, surely including myself, do not see a clear way forward ourselves right now. Sooner or later, our own plans, our own ambitions, our strength, our abilities all fail. I am so often moved and humbled by how much people give to their churches—their time, their money, their labor, their steadfast presence. That faithfulness, it seems to me, is what holds us together. Often it is also what holds us back.”

The Patriots really need to win today. (They did!)

“When you were pagans you were led astray to dumb idols,” Paul writes. The Holy Spirit draws us back with life-giving charisma. Paul will eventually list faith, hope and love as the greatest gifts—and then herald love as the greatest eulogy virtue of all. Mary Oliver wrote that loving the world is our best work, “Let me keep my mind on what matters,/ which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished… Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here, Which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart and these body-clothes, a mouth with which to give shouts of joy.”

Charisma as gift and as grace is not something we make happen but something that happens to us if we’ll let it. Eulogy virtue requires death by definition—losing our life to find our life, Jesus said. The apostle Paul confessed, “I have been crucified with Christ and no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” This doesn’t make any sense or is ever desirable without the Spirit’s charisma. The cross is our highest calling—“an obstacle to some and foolishness to some,” Paul admits earlier in this letter, “but to those who are called, the cross is the power and wisdom of God.” In Christ, our resumés give way to our eulogies we live out now. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously put it, “No one really knows why they are alive until they know what they’d die for.”

Mary Oliver, a poetic master at making plain the complex and paradoxical—her words have been popping up on social media all week (her critics envied her for being so popular), put it beautifully in her poem,“When Death Comes.” I’m going to close by reading the whole thing: 

When death comes like the hungry bear in autumn; 

when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut; 

when death comes 

like the measle-pox

when death comes 

like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: 

what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything 

as a brotherhood and a sisterhood, 

and I look upon time as no more than an idea, 

and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common 

as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, 

tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something 

precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life 

I was a bride married to amazement. 

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder 

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, 

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

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